BERTON HOUSE WRITER’S RETREAT

SEPTEMBER 7, 2017

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Leaving Home

It begins! I am in Whitehorse, YT and I’ve done my walkabout this morning, taking it all in, finding the Library and CBC Radio for later commitments.  I am functioning on three hours of sleep but remarkably, I am upright and functioning at some level that keeps me from wandering into traffic or into the swift and very serious looking Yukon River.

I get the feeling I have followed the yellow brick road and found myself in Whitehorse. What a perfectly wonderful place. No tall buildings, and very wide streets, amazing terrain. I am pinching myself. Am I really here? I think I might be.

IMG_2017 09 Edgewater Hotel Whitehorse

The Edgewater Hotel

The mountains on the flight in were round smooth bald masses, as if the trees couldn’t hold on and slipped down the sides. Little evidence of hardwoods was visible, all the pines and spruces claiming dominance. It is a beautifully rugged place, without pretension or glitz. It is pure.

The time change is always a struggle. This country is so ridiculously large. I was travelling for 15 hours from 9:00 in the morning yesterday. I was dizzy by the time I arrived and quite a little bit sick of small spaces.

I wandered down the street just before lunch to CBC Radio and met with Dave White and tried very hard to appear somewhat intelligent. I think it went rather well. No fainting, not too much stuttering, Dave made it very easy.

IMG_2017 09 CBC Radio Whitehorse

I do a reading tonight at the Whitehorse Public Library along with Al Pope, a well known local writer.

2017 09 Whitehorse Public Library

I carry on to Dawson City tomorrow to serve as writer-in-residence at Berton House for four months. Four months! The Writers’ Trust of Canada chose me along with Lawrence Hill and Drew Hayden Taylor and Sandy Poole. They are real writers. Does that mean I am, too?

 

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Gratitude – Post 95 – The Elusive Pen

I am grateful for the perfect writing implement, but having said that, I maybe should clarify that I am grateful for the journey of finding such a writing tool. Let me explain.

I used to think I would be an excellent skier if I had good skis and of course, matching attire in very cool colours, something slightly more form-fitting than my black and orange Moto-Ski snowsuit that kept the cold from my skin while I stood on Pembina Highway waiting for the Winnipeg city bus to rescue me from the freezing temperatures and whisk me off to the University of Manitoba, my orange scarf wrapped round and round my head as though my mother had dressed me for an expedition to the North Pole. Being warm out-ranked being cool as I am sure you can imagine.

I used to think I would be a better cook if I had the right pots and the perfect apron. No ruffles allowed. An apron in a bright green with possibly a frog leaping across the front would fit the bill. The ingredients would then jump into the mix with culinary precision, the aroma fragrant and the flavours decadent. I am a mediocre cook at best despite having a wonderful apron and reasonably good pots.

I used to think if I had the right shoes I could tap dance and the shoes would know all the right steps and I would tap out a story in perfect rhythm with the music. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly would swoon if they witnessed my Double Buffalo and my Paradiddle and I would give new meaning to the Scuffle Step. I never owned a pair of tap shoes so perhaps that is why I didn’t have a career on the stage, though it wasn’t for lack of pretending on my childhood linoleum kitchen floor until those who didn’t appreciate my tapping talent held me down with harsh threats of stop making such a racket or else.

I used to think my world would demonstrate perfect order if I had the right refrigerator, a roomy one with shelves that move up and down and slide in and out. My refrigerator contents look like my cat put my food away and when I clean and polish and shine the insides of my refrigerator the results, like my life, display an organization that prevails for brief seconds.

But. There is always a but isn’t there, despite my reluctance to use that word in conversation and in conjuring up various options to problems. I have been on a quest for several decades now for the perfect pen. I have found one or two that came close but despite keeping a healthy inventory of them the pen was discontinued at some point. I need the right pen in my hand to do serious writing. I can rattle off ideas and lists with any old pen, usually a pencil, but when I am in serious writing mode I need the perfect implement. I have pulled the lid from my last “perfect” pen so I must begin my search again and I hardly know where to start. I sometimes look longingly at the pen sets that are under glass at the pen store. I never look at the price tag because that would be foolish. One can’t take such chances. It is bad enough buying a mattress without being able to sleep in it for a couple of weeks to be sure, but to buy an expensive pen with no guarantee of its perfection is madness, plain and simple.

I went through a fountain pen stage in school, the kind that required filling from an ink bottle and then I graduated to fountain pens that came with cartridges and they were exceptionally cool, but eventually I tired of the mess on my fingers. There are ball point pens, gel pens, roller balls and fibre tips of every variety and though I like a fine tip, it can’t be so fine that it scratches when I write. So before I leave for the Yukon to spend four months at the craft of writing, I must find a solution for my pen dilemma. Time is running out. Such challenges are the stuff of life. (My tongue is in my cheek just in case you weren’t sure.) I shall carry on.

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Gratitude – Post 94 – August

I’m grateful for August, but not for the reasons one would think. August reminds me of something I need to be reminded about.

August snuck out from behind the weeds in my garden and from my so-called lawn and pounced on me, when I least expected it. August caught me off guard and threw me to the ground before I could fight back and then knocked the last bit of oxygen from my lungs. August, the month of seeing summer in the rearview mirror, has arrived.

Back to school supplies are out and though I long to buy new erasers and fresh clean stacks of paper and freshly sharpened pencils and binders and book bags, the thought of summer being in the past tense has me digging my fingernails into this day and not letting summer get away from me. But we all know how that turns out; the effort is fruitless.

August is the last chance to get a holiday in, the last chance to spring clean my windows, the last chance for picnics and boat rides and swimming in northwestern Ontario water. I know that isn’t really true, but this August day, as I sit at my desk circling the wagons around my literary efforts, those feelings seem immensely real.

August takes the summer green of July and bakes it to a dull version of itself. The grass quits growing with the same determined enthusiasm. Firewood stacking has begun, chimney cleaning booked, picking berries started and pretending I’ll do something with the dill that grows of its own accord in the pockets and corners of my garden and staring at my paddock fence does not get it painted. I’m running out of time.

Time isn’t a tangible concept, not really. What one particular minute feels like to you differs from what it feels like to me and that can change on any given day. As we age, it seems the minutes pick up their pace, trying with dedicated fervor to out run the last.

William Penn said that “time is what we want most, but what we use worst”. I had heard that saying on many occasions and it prompted me to look up the purveyor of such truth. William Penn lived from 1644 to 1718 and he was an English real estate entrepreneur, a fact I found a bit odd, considering the day in history, but that reflects my own limited education in the idea of conveying real estate. More importantly, Penn was deemed an early advocate of democracy and religious freedom. He was a Quaker and known for his good relations with “Native Americans”, a rarity at that time. Quakers don’t bow to king and consider all men equal. So I have to credit Penn with wisdom regarding time and how we use time with little regard for its peril.

I had promised myself I would take my morning coffee to my deck and tuck into a chair under my gazebo shelter and I would start the day slowly and with intention and with focus to enjoy each second or be aware of each second at the very least. I failed. Today I crawled from bed after a very little bit of sleep and I trudged as I began my day. I’ll do better tomorrow, because as Benjamin Franklin told us, “Lost time is never found again.”

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Gratitude – Post 93 – Finnegan

I am grateful for my dear cat Finnegan. A cat is a home’s visible soul, said Jean Cocteau. If that is the case my home’s soul is visibly in need of vacuuming. I have moments when I am sweeping up pet hair from my floors and from my furniture for the fourth time on any given day, moments while I am sifting through waste-laden odour-filled kitty litter, moments while I look at the thread-bare arms of my now pathetic living room furniture and during such moments I make disparaging comments about my pets and I sometimes pause to count the years until I may be free of my so-called pet burden. Well, remember when your grandmother warned you to be careful of what you wish for? She was right.

Finnegan, my ginger-coloured feline pal, had a run-in with my neighbour’s vehicle a few days ago and Finnegan ran off into the woods to presumably greet death. I am away from home and daughter Laurie is in charge and she is an animal lover of the extraordinary variety and she is also a new mom. Her plate was full before she scooped up Abby and, with umbrella in hand, went into the woods to find poor injured, or worse, Finnegan.

Upon hearing the news of Finnegan’s traffic incident, I immediately felt regret for my regular and frequent complaints regarding cat hair and claw sharpening and litter boxes while all the kitty perfection that is Finnegan rushed to the surface.

Finnegan is not aloof nor does he behave as though he is chairman of the board. He is subtle in his behaviour. I have been chastised for allowing him to run free outdoors, but he loves being a jungle cat. He embraces the wild and though that may shorten his life, such freedom gives his life greater purpose than being confined indoors to answer my needs. When he arrives home from his adventures he likes to be welcomed into the house with a touch of ceremony. One can open the door for him but he actually needs a verbal greeting and a pat on the head before he commits himself to enter. Then, of course, he likes to have a meal ready to go, but he isn’t offensively demanding. After he has filled his tummy he likes to find a place to use his contortionist skills to fall asleep. On days when he is feeling quiet and pensive, he prefers the back of my closet behind some long prom dress that one of my daughters wore. He sleeps there until he feels restored and then he comes out and likes to interact with a small dose of affection, nothing too effusive. If I am on my bed reading he likes to lie beside and if I am at my desk he likes to snuggle behind my back on my office chair. After he feels restored it is time to return to the great outdoors, rain or shine. He’s not much for winter adventures though and is very happy to see the snow recede and his freedom restored.

When I was sure I would never see Finnegan again, I was longing for his snuggles and I convinced myself that he doesn’t shed that much and I didn’t like my sofa anyway in that it is the colour of a sickly bowl of pea soup so what harm did his scratching do in the long run. But mostly I knew my life would be incomplete without his meow at the door that said, “Here I am. I’m home.”

Finnegan used up one of his lives and seems to have come through the truck battle with only minor injuries. He and Laurie visited the vet and without fuss Finnegan allowed those in the veterinary profession to check him out. He is home and awaiting my return and I look forward to snuggling him and telling him I am so glad that he is okay and to assure him we are still in this thing together. Perhaps you could remind me of this when I next complain about the mountain of cat hair on everything. If you wouldn’t mind.

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Gratitude – Post 92 – Aimee and Linden

I am grateful for Aimee and Linden. I just had the great fortune of spending time with Aimee, daughter #1, and my wee grandson Linden who is three. The moments we spend with family are far too rare these days, but when it happens I ask the cells of my heart to take it all in, to store the magical moments until “next time”. We laughed, we remembered and we shared a few tears. Aimee has an extraordinary heart. Watching her mother her son with patience, kindness and unlimited love moves me to tears in those moments when I am witness. She is fair and consistent as we all strive for while most of us fall short, but even at three Linden has wings to be Linden, a gift from his mother and she is at the ready to help him, to guide him and most importantly, to keep him safe when someone or something might harm him.

Though he is only three, Linden’s language allows for conversation and real discussion about the challenges of being three. When asked if he could fetch a run-away shovel from the water beside a dock, his no nonsense response was “that’s not possible” with a look on his face of how could you think it was, do you see how short my arms are?

Linden loves his mommy. He is sure to check on her when she is out of sight. When she steals a moment for a shower he is soon knocking on the bathroom door and asking, “Are you okay, mommy? Do you want me to come in?” before he enters regardless of her answer and he is always welcome. I have no doubt Linden will grow into a man with a firm dose of empathy, of kindness, of integrity. All those qualities are there now being nurtured and fed. He notices when others need help and he has no tolerance for unkindness. He tests the waters of “I want” in appropriate intervals to keep his mother on her toes, sometimes throwing in a good collapsing to the floor and a wail of just the right intensity. But then reason prevails and he dusts himself off and gets on with the day. Some days we all feel like flopping on to the floor and should follow Linden’s lead.

After seven glorious days with Linden and Aimee I find my heart heavy as I head for home. Though home is a lovely place to be heading, I wish I could tuck the two of them into my suitcase and release them only when they promise never to wander from my “every day”. But we do wander and adventures call to us and we end up spread far too widely apart when the dust settles. Linden’s last little nugget of advice that I shall incorporate into my mantra was “I promised my mind”. While he was trying to get a job done and was asked to leave it unfinished, he merely shook his head and replied in a firm but quiet voice. “Sorry, Mom. I promised my mind.” I shall take that one step further. I shall promise my heart to never forget these moments. I should probably let my mind in on the plan, too.

What promises have you made to your mind? Hope you can see them through.

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Gratitude- Post 91 – Aiden

I am grateful for Aiden. Let me explain.

If your heart is aching or unsure of itself, if the world feels heavy and makes no sense, I happen to know a cure. It’s organic and homeopathic so it will treat the heart, the brain, the soles of your feet and it comes with an infallible guarantee. Follow my instructions closely.

Find a little boy, one who is almost three years old, who answers to the name of Aiden, whose eyes sparkle blue and his hair is clinging to its baby blond by its finger tips, who wears his favourite Blue Jays ball cap a little to the side, unintentionally, and as a result his appearance has a jaunty flavour. When he invites you to his pretend playground that doubles as a foyer in his home, don’t hesitate, accept willingly and wholeheartedly. With his favourite book in tow, make yourself comfortable as best you can. Though your aging bum might groan and your back may whine, stretch out on the floor and tuck wee Aiden under your arm and hold his offered hand tightly and begin to read. When he lays his head against you, up close to your heart, anything and everything that was troubling you will vanish in the space of a heartbeat. I assure you.

I’ve just had such a wonderful experience with my Aiden, my grandson who melts my heart when I watch him play, his imagination well nurtured and encouraged. I am blessed, my three grandchildren absolutely perfect and there’s no grandma bias anywhere in that statement I would argue. Ha ha.

Aiden got me to thinking. If politicians and lobbyists and all those making decisions about the future of the country, of the planet, would conjure up the perfection of their version of Aiden, of a child that means the world to them, I think we would have less slip-ups, our vision would lengthen when we look for solutions and answers to new questions and when we ponder corrections for old mistakes that have yet to be solved.

I recently watched a video of British school children at about the age of six or seven. They were paired up with differing heritage and skin colour; a Downs Syndrome little girl was paired with her non-Downs Syndrome pal, a child with lovely coloured skin matched with a white child and so on. These children were asked what makes them different from each other. Each pair, without exception, was stumped for an answer to this query. They thought and thought, looking at each other with careful scrutiny and could come up with only differences such as preferring skipping over running, living up the hill versus down, but in all other areas of comparison they saw each other as exactly the same and therein lies the hope, therein is the positive core of being human. If we let the child in us outshine the cynical adults we have become, if we plan for a future that keeps all our “Aidens” safe, we won’t go wrong. That is my wish as we begin the next 150 years of being Canadian and maybe, just maybe, our example will spill out and spread around the world.

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Gratitude – Post 90 – Wasting Food

I am grateful for the hearts and brains that reside in those who find solutions to problems and change the face of humanity even if only briefly or in a small localized area. Some of these superheroes are tackling the idea of waste not, want not.

To say I find the number of those living on the street in this country, in any country, alarming and upsetting seems an obvious statement to make and somewhat trite. I heard someone in political authority once say there is no solution to poverty that poverty begets poverty. I think the latter part of that statement is true. How does one break from the chains of poverty when the weight of life is so very heavy, the opportunities so limited? But a solution still exists, buried beneath the rhetoric and lip service, denying those who claim from some misguided religious doctrine that those who live in poverty are there because they have “earned” it and likewise for those living with extraordinary wealth.

Some time ago I watched a film about the waste of food in grocery stores and restaurants. I’m sure it is no surprise the facts are disturbing. Perfectly edible food ends up in landfill because it is part of doing business the big grocery stores claim. When Marketplace dug through Walmart’s garbage bins in 2016 they found a staggering amount of fresh edible food, cartons of milk still ahead of its best-before-date, cheeses, oranges. Walmart’s solution upon being exposed: build a fence around their trash bins. And as an added concern, this food was thrown in the trash without being separated for compost and recycling. Walmart isn’t the only violator, but the other big chains use a trash compactor to hide their transgressions. Meanwhile, the homeless go hungry and food banks struggle to provide quality food to those in need.

850,000 Canadians use food banks every month, reported CBC Marketplace in 2016, yet $31 billion of food ends up in landfill and composters each year. Many countries have been looking long and hard at this problem. France has banned food waste. Supermarkets are required to create partnerships with charities to keep food out of the garbage bin. Italy has taken steps making food donations easier and offering tax credits for food donations.

Government has been slow to respond in Canada, but charitable groups and entrepreneurs are thinking creatively to solve the problem of food waste, the superheroes, if you will. Toronto’s Second Harvest has been involved in “food rescue” for more than thirty years. Not Far From The Tree, another Toronto initiative, harvests fruit from trees in private yards and gets that surplus fruit to those in need. In 2015, the UN signed on to cutting food waste in half by 2030, at both the retail and consumer level.

We are consumers who insist on beautiful produce and the “ugly fruit” gets tossed because of its aesthetic value, not because of its food value. I watched a local gardener last fall grind up a mountain of carrots to put back on the land because of the imperfect appearance of the carrots. Though that is better than occupying landfill, I think of all the families who could have benefited from an “ugly” carrot. I’m rather fond of an ugly vegetable. As kids when potato harvest was upon us we looked for the lopsided, strangely shaped potatoes and we were absolutely certain they possessed an amazing power that we would inherit if we ate them. What if that were true?

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